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    What’s Wrong with the Enneagram

    You are not a personality type.

    By Christopher Hazell

    May 8, 2023
    • Cindy Holladay

      I find that personality "typing" is like any other information. It can be used to compare/contrast people, or it can be used to understand our obvious complexities. I find the Enneagram a useful way to understand the traps of my mind and it gives me some suggestions for overcoming my personality peccodillos, not wallow in them. Of course it can be used for that too. But every system of information is can be misused. The thing I like about the Enneagram is that it's very point is to mature out of your "hangups" and into your sacred nature as union with God which results in responsible and loving relations with everyone and everything else

    • Richard Woike

      VERY interesting. Your point-of-view re this methodology/marketing exercise makes a lot of sense. Thanks for taking the trouble of sharing your ideas.

    • Phoebe Love, Spiritual Director

      Thank you for this perspective. The original teachers of the Ennegram warned that if it became commodified, it would be misunderstood and misused. You've pointed that out. When I was in certification training at Loyola in Chicago, Jerry Wagner, one of the first US teachers, said we should learn it, sit with it over time (not take a test right away) and take it into conversation with God and a spiritual director. It is not meant to be prescriptive (a short cut as you properly identified) but descriptive (observational that deepens our awareness over the long haul). The E. is unique in that it reflects the spiritual truth that we are each designed in the image of God--"the virtues" and "holy ideas" of each number. And that we are each broken and we struggle with sin-- the "passions" and "ego-fixations" of each number. Evagrius taught similar truths in the 4th century. It is only a tool but a good one for "putting off the old self with its practice and putting on the new self which is being renewed in the knowledge after the image of its creator."

    • Chris

      The Enneagram is not new agey or new at all. I find it very helpful, but only if you know your type (I thought I was a one at first, but I'm a six). It's not a box, it's just describing certain aspects of personality. For me, it has helped see some things that were hidden, has helped me pray for help with them, has helped me see that shaming myself for aspects of personality I was born with doesn't help at all. It's not about becoming an "optimal human being," or finding a shortcut out of the dark, but about seeing more clearly and embracing who we truly are. Of course "we’re much more mysterious and interesting and confounding than any mere numbered type." As with anything else, it must be held lightly. It can't be taken as scripture, can't take the place of God's guidance, of praying, of listening for God in the silence. And if God leads me away from the Enneagram, I'll certainly follow. For now, I find it helpful. Father Richard Rohr's book about the Enneagram is a good resource.

    • Charlie Johnson

      I agree with you. I think the best tool in use right now is Clifton’s Strengths. No two people get the same result, each persons is entirely unique. This reflects how unique we are created by God. Also research based unlike the Enneagram. That said, these things are just tools, and will always be imperfect!

    • Michael Wedman

      Chris, thank you for the thought-provoking article. I appreciate your perspective. Jerry, I agree with your comment. I only became aware of the Enneagram in the past couple of years, but I've found it to be helpful in exploring my spiritual journey. I've made it a practice to refrain from anchoring myself to any assessment. It's reasonable to assume, I believe, that they all have limits and that extending them beyond those limits could result in unintended issues.

    • Jerry Summers

      Certainly, the Enneagram is no shortcut to a better or desired self. Pigeonholing and streamlining amount to improper use. But can it be, is it, a "tool" best employed long-term, with wise and mature guidance, for personal honesty and growth in the Spirit? Yes, I think so. Let it be a sophisticated tool used carefully, and always a part of one's heart's drive toward Christlikeness.

    Several years ago I took a woman out on a date. We went to an old two-story house that had been converted into a café. The walls were plastered with faded posters and vinyl covers of musicians: Michael Jackson, The Who, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks. The carpet was an earthy vanilla, and it smelled of old wood and espresso. I ordered a three-dollar coffee loaded with cream and sugar and my date ordered hibiscus tea. I had never heard of it. Tall and long-limbed, she had a silver nose ring and a tattoo snaking along her collarbone. She had that whole singer-songwriter thing going for her, which I found alluring.

    We sat on a loveseat upstairs and she queried my musical knowledge, asking about my favorite bands, musicians, and lyricists. Then we moved on to passions and hobbies. She was an artist and so, naturally, she asked if I had some artistic project of my own in the works. “I dabble as a writer,” I told her. This wasn’t untrue, exactly, but I played it up, thinking it would add a level of mystique.

    After a while, she turned to something else: my Enneagram. This, like the tea cupped in her hands, I had never heard of. My ignorance only excited her and she began asking me personal questions. She explained it was a type of personality profiler, although with a mystical, New-Agey flare. Her enthusiasm about the intricacies of my life and personality was remarkable. It felt good to be seen, to have someone I barely knew care so much about understanding me. Later that night, a mere forty-five minutes after we said our goodbyes, I received a long email with excerpts of her favorite song lyrics and, unsurprisingly, a link to take an online Enneagram test.

    While nothing came of the date, that night had a lasting influence on me. I became fascinated with self-discovery by way of online exploration. I began taking a slew of assessment tests, personality indicators, skill and talent inventories. I embarked on an excavation of my interior self. I believed the more data I could gather and store the more confident I could grow in navigating life’s vagaries. I remember the feeling of elation that took root as I read the detailed description of my so-called Enneagram type. I was a Type 4, “The Individualist”: creative, mercurial, passionate, restless, drawn to beauty, etc. At the time, I read this as a clear and distilled articulation of who I am: why I do what I do, my weaknesses and strengths, my motivations and fears, my raison d’être.

    According to The Enneagram Institute, “the Enneagram helps us to see ourselves at a deeper, more objective level and can be of invaluable assistance on our path to self-knowledge.” The Enneagram holds that everyone falls into one of nine categories. Technically, there are subcategories that take into account “wings,” but these only add nuance to a person’s primary type. The types themselves are similar to what you might find in other personality assessments: there is the brash, decisive, and ambitious Type 8, the adventurous, experience-seeking, and easily-bored Type 7, the service-oriented, people-pleasing, and compassionate Type 2, and so on. What differentiates the Enneagram from some other personality indicators, though, is that aside from detailing a given type’s strengths and weaknesses, it also offers each type’s core desire and how to fulfill it to achieve optimal flourishing and self-knowledge.

    Collage of young people's faces, heads with colored silhouette, shadow isolated on light background.

    Illustration by master1305.

    Personality assessments like these are quite popular in our culture. Roughly two million people take another well-known personality assessment, the MBTI, every year. In fact, more than 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges and universities, and 200 government agencies use the MBTI to “type” their employees. In recent years, though, it’s the Enneagram that seems to be all the rage, especially among Millennials. There is an endless sea of articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos about the Enneagram, some offering relationship advice on the coupling of different types and others sharing how each type can be successful in the workplace. You can even listen to your Enneagram type’s theme song. It has also enjoyed widespread popularity in Christian publishing, though not without controversy, with some advising caution because of its lack of scientific backing or because it contains aspects of New Age spirituality.

    The notion that human beings can be classified by psychological temperament extends much further back than the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, or even Jung. Rudimentary elements of the theory of the four humors can be traced back to the fifth century BC in a Hippocratic treatise called The Nature of Man. The details of the theory shifted over time, but the basics posit that the human body is composed of four distinct fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) and that the interplay of these fluids influences human temperament, physical appearance, and moral character. While the optimal and healthy human being enjoys a balance of these four fluids, according to the theory, an excess of one of the fluids causes certain physical ailments, temperamental quirks, and tweaks in character. Someone with an excess of blood (sanguine), for instance, might display an enthusiastic, jovial, and passionate temperament. On the other hand, someone with an excess of black bile (melancholic) might display a cowardly, sickly, and gloomy one. The exact temperamental traits and descriptions differed depending on the historical time and place. Meletius the monk detailed the temperament traits associated with an excess of each humor in a treatise written sometime after the sixth or seventh century:

    Blood makes the soul more joyous, amongst those in whom it predominates. When yellow bile dominates, it makes the soul more vehement and bold. When it is black bile, it makes the soul more majestic and vigorous. When it is phlegm, it makes the soul lazier and harsher.

    We’ve known for thousands of years that people do indeed share certain temperamental and personality characteristics (even if the reasons why have varied or been debunked by modern science). Some of us do indeed seem driven by the acceptance and acclaim of others (the alleged Type 3). Some of us love losing ourselves to abstract ideas and pursuing knowledge (the alleged Type 5). And so it makes sense that, as long as we’re answering multiple-choice questions honestly, we’ll probably walk away with at least a morsel of knowledge about ourselves in comparison to others.

    Arguably, assessment tests like the Enneagram or MBTI have enabled people to connect with like-minded individuals, start friendships, and feel more known and understood, all “pros” to which advocates can point. People can find in-person meet-ups for others interested in the Enneagram or connect through social media with those who share their type. And there’s a plethora of advice from well-intentioned people trying to help others use this information to secure better careers.

    Being able to fold myself into a pre-arranged category enabled me to believe I could map out my own flourishing and trek confidently toward a better future.

    But there is always a danger with any assessment tool that seeks to type and classify people into neat categories. Even if unintentionally, they ultimately reduce people into models, a series of functional actors that respond and behave in deterministic ways. They foster the perception of people as one-dimensional caricatures and clichés: artistic and creative but dramatic and emotionally unmoored, brilliant and insightful but lazy and apathetic, dependable and hardworking but humorless and boring. Though most Enneagram devotees insist this shouldn’t happen, over-identification with types will inevitably cause us to see people as “categories” instead of individuals. The personal is replaced by the abstract, fashioning people into representatives of a category as opposed to single and unrepeatable persons.

    Naturally, this cannot be completely avoided. It’s by simplifying reality that we are able to make coherent choices and act accordingly. We make sense of the world by demarcating and simplifying. An obvious example is when we must make a large life decision, such as what career to pursue. We can’t account for the innumerable variables of each choice, the vast “if-then” statements that branch out toward infinity. So we assess, simplify, and act. And when it comes to ourselves and others – these messy and complex beings with fluctuating fears, talents, worries, memories, flaws, dreams, insecurities, and hopes – we can’t help but do the same.

    Still, we can, I hope, become aware of this tendency to simplify ourselves and other people and do our best to keep it in check. And this is the danger with the Enneagram and my biggest problem with it: it foments our tendency to simplify ourselves and others. It can be great fun talking about our types, taking online tests, and guessing the type of our grouchy boss or flakey roommate. But I’m not sure it’s all just harmless entertainment. At its core, it strips us and others of our unique unrepeatability by training us to see others as categories.

    No matter how sophisticated we become at categorizing human beings – something that will no doubt increase as technology develops in the areas of neuroscience, genetics, and epigenetics – there will always be aspects to us that remain unknowable and irreducible. This is a good and beautiful thing. And it’s harder to keep this in mind when we’re defined by a personality “type” that only captures a vague and distorted shadow of who we really are.

    Looking back to my phase of ardent “self-discovery” by way of personality tests, I realize now that what I really desired was a shortcut, one that would simplify and reduce the inherent mystery and unintelligibility of both myself and others. Being able to fold myself into a pre-arranged category enabled me to believe I could map out my own flourishing and trek confidently toward a better future. This was a false promise, of course, and I can see now that there were factors that made this lie so appealing to me at the time. I was unhappy and bored with my job. I had recently ended a three-year relationship with a woman I loved. I felt lonely and jaded. The thought of making sense of what seemed senseless at the time – of discovering a clear purpose and way out of the dark – was deeply attractive, as I suppose it always is. This is what makes the Enneagram so popular. It promises a shortcut for understanding ourselves and others, a shortcut that bypasses the development of self-knowledge that only comes gradually as we navigate the inherent messiness of life, making choices and learning from the consequences. As Rainer Maria Rilke advises a younger poet:

    Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

    There is no shortcut to knowing ourselves or others. We only get glimpses as we strive, patiently, to live well: forging and nourishing relationships, committing ourselves to meaningful work, learning to forgive ourselves and others. As Charles Dickens writes in A Tale of Two Cities, “every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”

    Thinking back to my date in that café, what really mattered that evening had nothing to do with some silly online test. Rather, it was encountering someone curious about me for my own sake – not to help me become a more “productive” employee or “self-aware” individual or spiritually “optimal” human being. It’s in the company of others that we can begin to explore who each of us truly is. And when we do, we’ll discover that we’re much more mysterious and interesting and confounding than any mere numbered type.

    Contributed By ChrisHazell Christopher Hazell

    Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He writes a Substack newsletter called Ends in Mind.

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